Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: "Album Sequels 1: Jigga that Word I Can't Say"

It's a big week for hip-hop sequels. After moving the release date up from September 11th (the atypical Friday), Jay-Z finally dropped the (sorta) long-awaited The Blueprint 3 this past Tuesday (September 8th). I say (sorta) because the Timbaland-produced tracks leaked in the past few weeks blew really, really hard. Like "Kill Yourself" hard.

Luckily, Timbo's tracks are by far the worst on the record, and Mr. Kanye West actually turns in some of the record's best beats. A few of them (like the mostly "meh" "Hate", featuring Kanyeezy himself) stick to the icy electronica of 808s and Heartbreak, but Kanye's thankfully brought his A-game. He's brought back some of the earthy soul of his classic beats (e.g., his hits, plus the career-high "Gone" off of Late Registration), and it sounds surprisingly fresh shoehorned next to a non-Auto-Tuned 808 vibe.

Elsewhere, Swizz Beatz (cheers for "Ring the Alarm", jeers for "Tambourine") bites the invasive-sample feel that made "A Milli" so irritatingly brilliant for "On to the Next One", and relative unknown Al Shux lets Jigga flow over some live (sounding) instruments with a killer hook by Alicia Keys on "Empire State of Mind."

But, like those great love affairs, Hov works best when he's not tryingtoo hard. And, for better or for worse, Jay is trying really, really hard on this thing. It's clear even from the title that he's trying to recapture past glory. The Blueprint 3? What are you trying to pull, Jay?

The Blueprint 2 didn't sound like its predecessor, and neither does 3. That's okay, I guess. Jay probably would just as soon retire again rather than rehash a dead style. Although I have a hard time thinking The Blueprint's beats wouldn't sound just as fresh today; "Hola' Hovito", in particular, sounds like nothing before or since. In fact, the record that sounds the most like the first Blueprint would probably be 2007's American Gangster, which leans heavily on '70s soul samples while eschewing the endless (but almost always satisfying) braggadocio of The Blueprint.

But the Blueprint sequels don't even follow the same stylistic template that the first one did. That record features only one guest appearance (and I'd say Nas was right when he said Eminem upstaged Jigga on "Renegade"), and Jay-Z spends most of the time rapping about Jay-Z, naturally his favorite subject.

Both of the Blueprint sequels are positively brimming with crappy guest appearances (can you really claim to hate Auto-Tune if you get Rihanna to sing the hook on your lead single?). Once again, The Black Album actually hews closer to The Blueprint's template, in m.o. if not in sound.

So why the sequelling? I don't think I'm being cynical when I say that Jay knows how to move records, and he's not above sacrificing his cred to do it ("I dumbed down my lyrics and doubled my dollars," he rhymed on The Black Album's "Moment of Clarity"). It's Jay-Z's commercial acumen that makes him so damn good, in fact. He's so committed to getting paid that his "just business" approach becomes "business as art". Dude's good enough to make even a Linkin Park track sound ill.

At his best, Jay walks the line with aplomb. But when he's trying too hard, it's clear as day. And, from the title to the handful of truly awful tracks, it feels like Jigga phoned this one in. Although it might have made the most sense to call The Black Album and American Gangster the actual Blueprint sequels, I think Jay wanted to let those stand on their own as the brilliant (and slightly-rushed, but still pretty excellent) statements they are.

Jay trotted out the sequel gimmick, then, to move units. It's distressing to see him cannibalize his own best material just to sell records, but you'd be missing the point if you knocked Jay for the hustle.

Next week, I'll add my own sequel to my sequels entry and take on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II.

Until next time, I'm Jordan Pedersen (posting as Clive Candy, which is explained here, until I fix my Blogger bizness), and I'm helping you mop up all that messy excess culture. Thanks for reading, especially my cheesy faux-journalistic signoff.